Suffering Christ and a Fallen World

Dealing with Issues of Combat

As I reflect back on my time deployed to Afghanistan I am very grateful for the ways I was able to minister to the Marines and Sailors I served with. I served as a Navy Chaplain. I was responsible for providing Pastoral care and counseling in addition to holding Worship Services. The Marines and Sailors I served with dealt with issues of combat as well as living among people who faced extreme poverty and a daily struggle to survive.

Two powerful theological realities came to life for me that enabled me to be effective in the care I provided. First, the reality of the Fall of Humanity as outlined in Genesis Chapter three and four. Second, the power of Jesus Christ as a leader who leads by example.

The Fall

Life in the United States truly spoils us. While we have issues and there are some dangerous places, most of our population lives in relative security and peace. This can lead to a distorted view of God’s blessing and provision. “If I am a good person I will have a good life” is a common held belief. I believe the Bible provides a deeper more complex picture. In Genesis three we see the consequences of Adam and Eve breaking the commandment given to them, not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Many of us end the story at chapter three. I believe it is critical to include chapter four. In chapter four we are given the story of Cain and Able. Both brothers offer a sacrifice. Able gets it right and God gives Cain guidance. Cain’s response is to kill his brother.

This harsh story is incredibly valuable in talking with people who were on the frontlines of seeing an unfair world. Improvised explosive devices (IED) are random and anyone from a helpless civilian to a young man who just had a child could be killed. In the fourth chapter of the first book of the Bible we see a man who did everything right but was brutally murdered. Because of the Fall of Humanity life is no longer fair. I was able to talk honestly about the reality of an unfair world. It gave credibility to the Bible. It showed unfairness in all of its ugliness. Looking around a war torn countryside is to see firsthand accounts of why God did not want Adam and Eve to eat from the tree.

I had rich and purposeful discussions on the true nature of living in this world. This allowed me to bridge to the second theological reality.

Jesus Christ as a Leader

Hebrews 2:10 provides an interesting theological picture of Jesus being made perfect by suffering. As I worked with young Marines and Sailors, I found myself being drawn to the beauty of this reality. I was able to see God’s response to a fallen world was to become personally involved. God became so involved he became fully human and experienced the ugliness of this world including death.

Talking to Marines who had lost a fellow Marine was heartbreaking. There was also this reality they would be going back out on patrol and face the potential of death. While there is plenty of psychological and emotional ways to overcome that fear, was there a way to touch their soul and comfort them? Yes. The fact that Jesus himself stayed on mission and even faced death is incredibly powerful. It meant God understood exactly what they were feeling.

Opportunities for Pastoral Care

I share my theological perspective in two venues. The first and most common was in one on one counseling sessions. These could happen in any number of locations from the side of a building to the Chapel tent. Often times the question was not “why” because they understood they were in combat. It was dealing with the emotions and anger associated with the unfairness of the situation. Many times the best thing I go do was listen. I would give my theological perspective when I felt the person was at a place to hear it. Timing is critical. Just because something is true does not mean a person is at a place to hear it. The critical piece for me was to let them feel heard and cared for. It may be cheesy but the saying is true: “they do not care about how much you know until they know how much you care.”

The second venue was in small group discussions as I visited with the unit. In casual conversation they would share frustrations and perspectives. This gave me an opportunity to facilitate some discussion around the idea of unfairness and God’s role. The key to this was to respect that not everyone in the group would have my same theological beliefs. Respect was critical and when done well the conversations were thoughtful.

I did have a major advantage. I was with them. I was dealing with some of the same struggles. This gave me credibility and they were more likely to listen. That only adds to the richness of the incarnation.

In the military leadership is a really big deal. The best leaders are those who lead by example. Jesus led by example. God would be with them. God had suffered. God had faced death. There was nothing they were going to face that God could not understand.

This is a very powerful picture that connected. It brought a level of peace to those I talked with. It also provide me with theological depth in my personal beliefs. I was able to bring my Christian faith to a harsh reality of war, death and suffering. It flourished bringing hope, life and peace. If I could provide Pastoral Care here I could take it anywhere.

Chaplain Paul Armstrong
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